Don’t confuse Wikileaks with journalism
The media is agog about the wonders of Wikileaks – but Sam Sole explains that what it is actually doing is not revolutionary or unique, in a story originally published in The Media magazine.
There have been some extravagant claims made about the way in which Wikileaks has changed the face of journalism. They are ill considered.
Leaks are one of the feedstocks of journalism, but they are not its defining characteristic.
Indeed, in South Africa, the undiscriminating way in which lazy journalists have treated leaks – the way in which they may have been used to manipulate the media – has been a legitimate criticism of journalistic standards.
What Wikileaks has done is simply tout for leaks on a global scale, but until Private Bradley Manning came along, its impact on the global information and media landscape had been rather limited.
The leaks that have had major impact – those on Afghanistan, Iraq and the US diplomatic cables – have all had a single source – Manning – and a security breach on that scale is unlikely to be repeated too soon.
That is not to say that setting up a secure means of receiving and publishing confidential material of major public interest is a bad idea. But it’s not journalism and it doesn’t replace journalism.
Even Julian Assange, Wikileaks’ founder and primary theorist, admitted that the website failed to make the impact it expected when it simply posted unmediated source material. People simply did not bother to wade through it to discover the salient and valuable aspects. Assange found that the website had to go through the material and create pointers, guides and highlights to make it more accessible.
When Wikileaks did this, it became not just a postbox but a publisher, with the rights and responsibilities that go with that.
That Assange learned his lesson is clear from the way in which Wikileaks has chosen to deal with the very large volume of material supplied by Manning. He has realised that people do not have the time and interest to go through the raw data, so he has contracted with a number of news organisations to receive the information and process and publish it journalistically.
It is clear that 99% of people’s knowledge of what is in the Wikileaks data will come from these mediated sources, not from the raw data.
Assange has made much of the quaint notion of ‘scientific journalism’, which gives readers access to the source material on which the story is based. This is hardly revolutionary. Many news sites provide scans of key documents, particularly those related to controversial stories.
But documents on their own are not enough. Nowadays, they are quite easy to forge. And often, they prove nothing more than the attitude of their compilers. What the US diplomatic cables show in relation to their reports from around the world is no more than what US diplomats believed to be true or likely. The fact that, by and large, they accord with an informed view of their subjects, is merely testimony to the fact that, despite much wishful thinking about the collapse of the American empire, the US State Department runs a pretty competent ship.
And, of course, many of the reports been met with vigorous denials – which proper journalism would be obliged to penetrate, were the allegations important enough.
Assange’s claim to be practicing a kind of journalism brings with it another responsibility: that of source protection and source management.
The fact that poor Private Manning has been so effectively identified suggests the management of his future got rather lost in Wikileaks’ excitement about what he gave them.
Again, experienced journalists will tell you that sources often have a hazy idea of the risks they are taking and how to minimise them. The journalist will usually have much more experience of this danger than the source and will have to take some responsibility for helping to protect that source.
Often this involves NOT publishing documents, merely alluding to the information contained in them, or publishing only a selection that might have a number of possible sources. Sometimes it means not publishing a story at all.
As we have discovered in South Africa, the unwary publication of leaked material is also highly open to manipulation. Now that Wikileaks has shown itself to be an effective megaphone, it will be a target of such efforts. Indeed, the more paranoid among us have already dismissed the current leaks as a CIA plot to consolidate anti-Iranian sentiment.
There is also something to be said for the traditional journalistic inquiry as to the agenda of a source. Assange is, of course, a secondary source for the material he publishes, but he is the person in primary control of the material.
Like many sources, he has made something of a bid to set the terms of the engagement with media publishers, though not unreasonably so.
But I think we will find, as journalists have found throughout the history of the profession, that allowing a source to control the story is not a good idea.
But there is more to be said about the broad Wikileaks agenda. To begin with, leakage is inherently asymmetrical. Leaks are more likely to come from societies that enjoy a degree of openness and less likely to come from societies that are closed and authoritarian.
In interviews, Assange has skipped around this reality, saying he would publish leaks from China and Russia if he got them. But the point is, he is much less likely to get them, because access to information is tightly controlled in those societies and the penalties for disclosure so much more severe.
So, to the extent that major leaks cause damage, they will more likely damage more open societies and possibly openness itself.
This is not to say that leaks should not published, but that a considered decision needs to be taken about the costs and benefits attached to particular leaks and the way they are handled. And a debate should be had about the issue of targeting proactive attempts to gain access to confidential information.
In that regard, Wikileaks – and especially Assange himself – has betrayed a rather overblown regard of its own grand anti-imperialist aspirations.
In that sense, while the argument that the leaks have not done any real demonstrable harm is correct, the furious reaction from the USA and its allies is not entirely unjustified. They view Assange, correctly, as being engaged in an attack on ‘the system’ itself or, as Assange has termed it, the “conspiracy”.
As Assange put it in his essay, State and Terrorist Conspiracies: “The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive ‘secrecy tax’) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption.”
So leaks are really a way not to promote accountability, or promote reform; they are a way of attacking the “conspiracy” itself and making it more vulnerable. But vulnerable to what?
Assange suggests a ludicrously naïve answer.
He argues: “Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.”
This kind of thinking is worthy of Donald Rumsfeld.
Leaking is NOT easy – specifically not in secretive and unjust systems.
It’s much easier in systems that do, in fact, try to maintain a level of accountability – even if only internally.
What is truly remarkable about the Iraqi war logs, for instance, is the level of reporting and control that the USA has maintained during an unjust and unpopular war.
A more secretive and unjust system would not bother, because the kind of information that made headlines is simply not vital to the blunt conduct of warfare.
What Assange and his uncritical supporters do not consider when they celebrate blows against the US Imperium is what consequences these blows may have and, if we are truly witnessing the collapse of the empire, how we manage that collapse so that what comes next is not much worse.
To believe that the exercise of power can be somehow cleverly cut off from the pursuit of secrecy is to misunderstand the nature of power and social organisation itself.
Al-Qaeda has shown that conspiracy is able to function quite well in a distributed environment, provided it has a common guiding principle. So can organised crime…
The choice may not be between the empire and its corporate accomplices versus some kind of utopian ‘global village’ democracy, but between managing a messy and imperfect order versus inviting in the forces of chaos.
This story was first published in the March 2011 issue of The Media magazine.